Last week, I described in some detail how state support for public higher education first waxed, then waned, over the last 60 years. Much of the decline in state subsidies for the institutions’ operating costs stemmed from pressure on state budgets to meet the growing needs of other state-supported programs, and an inability (coupled, to be sure, with an unwillingness) to continue providing public institutions with the same percentage of the states’ overall budgets as seen previously.
However, it would be a mistake to conclude that all of the problems associated with public higher education derive from a decline in state financial support. It would also be a mistake to assume this decline is entirely the result of mean-spiritedness on the part of state legislatures and governors. Things are much more complicated than that, and in order to understand the situation today correctly, we must take a short trip back in time.